When NASA put out a call for soft robotic technologies, Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio and her team at Yale University replied with something remarkable: robotic skins that can wrap around everyday objects, turning almost anything into a moving, grasping robot.
Described this week in Science Robotics, the skins are made of pliable elastic sheets with moving actuators and sensors on one side. They are designed to be reusable and modular, allowing them to be combined in a variety of ways to create different movements and uses, Kramer-Bottiglio explains via email.
In tests in the lab, Kramer-Bottiglio and her team wrapped the skin around the legs of a stuffed animal, and the toy horse lurched forward in an awkward gallop. A foam tube wrapped with a skin was able to inch forward like a worm. And a piece of skin connecting two pieces of cardboard could contract, turning the object into a rudimentary gripper.
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In unpredictable environments like outer space, where unforeseen problems can arise, this diversity gives the skins a creative advantage over traditional robots that are only designed for a limited amount of activities. (Also see intimate pictures of Sophia, a remarkably human-like robot.)
Sensors embedded along with the actuators can give helpful feedback as well—wearable skins placed on the back of a man were able to give feedback on his posture.
In the future, Kramer-Bottiglio hopes that the skins will be able to learn by themselves using data from the sensors, giving them the ability to adapt on their own, especially when wrapped around moldable objects like clay.
“Given the design-on-the-fly nature of this approach, it's unlikely that a robot created using robotic skins will perform any one task optimally,” Kramer-Bottiglio says. “However, the goal is not optimization, but rather diversity of applications."